“A letter always feels to me like immortality”: on letters and epistolary novels

Cross-posted at the Robbins Library blog, with minor modifications.

“A letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.” -Emily Dickinson, quoted in To The Letter by Simon Garfield

An epistle, from the Latin epistulais a letter: a composition in prose sent from one person to another, or from one person to a group of people. An epistolary novel is a novel in letters, a unique style of narration. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the first novel written in this way was Pamela by Samuel Richardson in 1740; Richardson employed the form again with Clarissa in 1748. Other authors began to write epistolary novels as well, including Goethe, who published The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774. And one of the most well-known epistolary novels is Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Acquaintances), which has been adapted into film more than once (Dangerous Liaisons in 1988Cruel Intentions in 1999).

Why are epistolary novels so compelling? One reason may be that they feel intimate. There’s the illegal thrill of reading someone else’s mail, but there’s also a first person voice, usually one character writing to another that they know well, or come to know well. The pace of the correspondence may heighten the suspense as characters – and readers – wait for a reply.

griffinandsabineMost epistolary novels are printed in the same way as regular books, but some go as far as to include actual envelopes and letters. Nick Bantock’s beautiful, mysterious Griffin & Sabine: An Extraordinary Correspondence is one of these: Griffin Moss and Sabine Strohem correspond in handmade postcards at first, then move on to longer letters, which the reader pulls out from an envelope and unfolds to read. (A word to the wise: there are six of these books. You may want to get them all at once and set aside a day or two to read them. You will want to know what happens next.)

guernseyOne deservedly popular novel in letters is The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, published in 2008. This book has had lasting appeal, and at least some of that appeal must come from the style in which it is written. The characters’ letters are direct, honest, funny, sorrowful, angry, heartbreaking, and romantic in turn. The reader feels as though she has direct access to the characters, without the authors as intermediaries.

attachmentsOther authors use a more traditional style of narration, but employ letters, journal entries, or – more recently – e-mails, text messages, and chats. A significant chunk of Rainbow Rowell’s first novel, Attachments, is told through two characters’ e-mail exchange – an exchange read by a third person, their company’s IT manager. Kimberly McCreight’s Reconstructing Amelia includes text messages and facebook status updates. The young adult favorite The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky is written as a series of letters from Charlie to an unknown recipient; Roomies by popular YA authors Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando also includes lengthy e-mails between the two main characters, high school graduates who are to be roommates in the fall.

lettersfromskyeOther recent epistolary or semi-epistolary novels are Letters From Skye by Jessica Brockmole, set in Scotland and America, and The Confidant by Helene Gremillon, set in France. These two novels don’t just use the contents of the letters to tell the reader a story; the letters’ discovery by other people becomes part of the plot. Letters are physical: they can be lost, delayed, delivered to the wrong address, or received, read, and tucked away in a drawer and forgotten until someone else comes along and finds them.

Letters often become a part of history, like journals, newspapers, books, and other documents. Simon Garfield’s book To The Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing provides dozens of examples of historical letters, from Cicero to Kerouac. Many biographies include a subject’s letters and journals (e.g. Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in LettersThe Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, and Jane Austen’s Letters). There is even a website, Letters of Note, that gathers fascinating letters from a variety of letter-writers, such as this one from Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) to his wife.

There are far more epistolary novels and excellent collections of letters than I have mentioned above. What’s your favorite? What are your thoughts on this manner of telling a story? And when was the last time you wrote (or received) a pen-and-paper letter?

“Men and women have been collecting letters since letters began. Unlike other collecting hobbies, philately say, or beautiful antique cars, the collecting of letters has always been a wholly natural endeavor. If you treasured what was said in a letter you kept it, and once you have three, you had a correspondence, and no one would accuse you of being a nerd or obsessive.” -Simon Garfield, To The Letter

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Letter to the School Board of Strasburg (CO) High School

Two of John Green’s books, Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns, are being challenged at a high school in Colorado. They are two of the nineteen books (see list below) proposed for the elective course in young adult literature. Parents are petitioning the school board to change the book list. John Green is asking for letters in support of the teacher, who is standing by her curriculum. Here’s my letter:

To the School Board of Strasburg (CO) High School,

I am writing in support of the books in the new YA literature course, and in support of their authors, the teachers and librarians who wish to teach them, and the students who want to read them.

Parents have a right to decide what their own children read, watch, and listen to, but they do not have a right to dictate what other parents’ children read, watch, and listen to. Parents who object to the content of the books included on the YA course syllabus may choose not to allow their students to participate in the course, but they ought not be able to dictate to other parents, students, and teachers.

An earlier letter/petition to this Board asked, “How can students develop into strong and productive citizens when their minds are fed with that which is criminal and vile, crass and crude?” I would respectfully disagree with this characterization of the books included in this course. (I have read thirteen of the nineteen books on the list, including the two by John Green.) I would also argue that this question does a disservice to teens, as does the statement that “Teens have very impressionable minds.” Children and teens are able to tell right from wrong in life and in literature, and literature is one of the safest places to explore the gray area between the two. In her book Reading Magic, Australian author Mem Fox wrote, “The whole point of books is to allow us to experience troubled realities that are different from our own, to feel the appropriate emotions, to empathize, to make judgments, and to have our interest held. If we sanitize everything children read, how much more shocking and confusing will the real world be when they finally have to face it?”

Presumably, these same teens who may be denied access to and, crucially, guided discussion about, these YA novels are learning about “criminal and vile, crass and crude” events in their history classes. They have grown up with graphic images not just in music videos and magazines but on the nightly news. They are aware of the real horrors in the real world. Please don’t underestimate their ability to process literature – especially literature in which the characters are dealing with very real situations.

Fiction has a proven link with empathy*; if you truly want your students to develop into compassionate individuals with good judgment and strong character, you should be encouraging them to read and discuss the novels on this list, and many more besides.

Sincerely,

Jenny Arch
Librarian
Hampshire College, 2003-2007
Columbia Publishing Course, 2007
Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science, 2010-2012

*See “The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction” by Annie Murphy Paul for The New York Times, March 17, 2012

Young Adult Fiction Elective Course (grades 10-12) Book List:

  1. Feed by M.T. Anderson
  2. Thinner Than Thou by Kit Reed
  3. Delirium by Lauren Oliver
  4. Uglies by Scott Westerfield
  5. Taken by Erin Bowman
  6. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon
  7. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  8. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  9. Will Grayson, will grayson by John Green and David Levithan
  10. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
  11. 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson
  12. Paper Towns by John Green
  13. If I Stay by Gayle Forman
  14. Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
  15. Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
  16. Looking for Alaska by John Green
  17. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  18. Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
  19. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

“I’d listen to her read a grocery list”: On Audiobooks

It doesn’t take that much endurance to read a picture book aloud. Reading for longer periods of time, however, can be taxing, which makes the work that audiobook narrators do even more impressive. I started listening to audiobooks when I started driving to and from work; I used to commute via subway, where I found that external noise drowned out anything coming through my headphones.

At first, not sure how much concentration I’d be able to spare, I started by re-reading books I’d already read, such as Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, which is performed by the author and a full cast. (It’s excellent.) I moved on to the Hunger Games trilogy, which Carolyn McCormick narrates (she is also excellent). Then I listened to Life by Keith Richards, read by Johnny Depp, Joe Hurley, and “Keef” himself; the switching between narrators seemed random and was somewhat jarring, but each individual reader was very good.

eleanorandpark_audioEventually, I started reading books I hadn’t read before, and I’ve become hooked on audiobooks; as soon as I finish one, I start another. Because my commute is blessedly brief and I’m usually only in the car for half an hour each day, I read a lot of shorter books (7-9 hours), often young adult novels. I’ve started seeking out particular narrators, such as Rebecca Lowman (Eleanor & Park, Rules of Civility) and Morven Christie (Code Name Verity, Burial Rites).

Luckily for me, audiobooks are becoming more popular, and publishers are producing more of them (see “Actors Today Don’t Just Read for the Part. Reading IS the Part,” Leslie Kaufman, The New York Times, June 29, 2013). As for whether listening to an audiobook counts as reading, there is plenty of debate. I would venture to say that as long as one has mastered the ability to read in print, audiobooks are as legitimate a way to consume books as reading them on paper (or on a screen). “We tend to regard reading with our eyes as more serious, more highbrow, than hearing a book read out loud,” T.M. Luhrman wrote in a New York Times  piece called “Audiobooks and the return of storytelling” on February 22. She continued, “The ability to read has always been invested with more importance than mere speech….But for most of human history literature has been spoken out loud.”

TFIOS_audioOne experiences a story differently, and remembers it differently, when hearing it read aloud as opposed to reading the text visually. Partly, audiobooks are a different reading experience for me because I don’t skip over sentences or skim paragraphs; I hear every single word. And a truly talented narrator can bring a book to life: listen to Jim Dale perform the Harry Potter books or Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, or Rebecca Lowman read Eleanor & Park or Rules of Civility. Kate Rudd reading The Fault in Our Stars brought me to tears, though I didn’t cry when I first read the book in print.

I think we are all hungry for stories, whether we read them to ourselves in print, listen to them as audiobooks, or read them out loud to ourselves or each other. If you aren’t an audiobook devotee already, I’d encourage you to give them a try. Libraries usually carry them on CD and sometimes on Playaways, and they are often downloadable in mp3 format too.

Characters, Gender, and Likability

Yesterday I followed a couple of links from Twitter and read these two pieces: “Why Talking About Girl Reading Matters” from Kelly Jensen at Stacked and “On Liking Characters” by Liz Burns at School Library Journal (SLJ). The Stacked post linked to Laurel Snyder’s post “Boys Will Be Boys, And Girls Will Be Accommodating.” Together, these pieces make the point that in focusing on “books for boys” (boys are generally more reluctant readers than girls) we do everyone an injustice.

If boys only ever read “books for boys,” they may never discover that they like other kinds of books as well. Those of us putting books into the hands of growing readers can’t underestimate them; we ought to encourage them to stretch and try something new. At the same time, “girl books” tend to be pushed to the sides, sending the message that they are less important. “The best solution,” writes Snyder, “would require us to push against the gender bias in the world, and in ourselves.”

If there’s one thing The Hunger GamesDivergent, and The Fault in Our Stars have proved, it’s that boys will read books that have girls as the main character. (As for the author’s gender, it’s not something I remember ever paying attention to much as I was growing up, and I don’t pay much attention now, either; this is borne out in my reading stats. But in the above examples, those incredibly successful trilogies are written by women.)

A character’s gender also affects their likability, as Burns points out in her piece. Some readers are quick to label girl characters unlikable if the character acts in a nontraditional way. But a likable character isn’t the same as a good one (i.e., a well-written, realistic one). Here’s my response to Burns’ piece:

The most important thing about character is believability. Are the character’s actions believable? Is there an internal consistency? Does the reader understand the character’s motivation? If the answer to these questions is yes, then the author has probably created a good character: recognizably human, with some flaws and some talents.

Likability is a different issue entirely. Personally, I would be bored reading about likable characters all the time, or if all characters were binary, either likable or unlikable – protagonist/antagonist, hero/villain. Real people are more complicated than that.

As Claire Messud has pointed out, the likability issue does affect female characters (and female authors) disproportionately; it’s more common for readers to criticize female characters for being unlikable than male characters.

My friend Anna has also written about the “books for boys/books for girls” issue, both at YALSA’s The Hub and on her own blog. On The Hub, she wrote, “…it doesn’t matter if a book is ‘for’ a guy or a girl; the gender of the intended audience tends to get all mixed up when you factor in the power of a good story. Boys like stories; girls like stories. Readers in general like stories” (emphasis added). Anna added to this thought a few days later on her blog, asking, “What About Books for Girls?” She wrote,

“Readers are readers. If we could just take off the gendered lenses entirely, I think we could serve our readers better. Let’s focus on writing, reading, and recommending stories that are true (in the manner of Truth, not necessarily a nonfiction story), that matter, that touch the soul, that are real, that show the varieties of human emotion and experience, that are maybe even an inspiration. Let’s do that instead of focusing on the gender we think might like the book the best. Books for girls are books for boys, and books for boys are books for girls. It’s all just stories.”

A skilled author, male or female, can write excellent, believable, well-rounded characters of any gender. Let’s try to focus on getting great stories into the hands of all readers.